US pastor Andrew Craig Brunson (C) arrives at Adnan Menderes airport in Izmir, on October 12, 2018 after being freed following a trial in a court in Aliaga in western Izmir province. US pastor Andrew Brunson, freed after a two-year detention in Turkey that shook relations between the countries, said on October 12 he was heading home soon. BULENT KILIC / AFP
Agence France-Presse

An American pastor held for two years in Turkey on terror-related charges headed home to the United States on Saturday, where he was to meet with US President Donald Trump, who signaled an easing in the diplomatic crisis sparked by the case.

Trump said he would welcome Andrew Brunson who has become a cause celebre for the US leader’s conservative Christian base — at the White House shortly after arrival.

On Friday, a Turkish court in Aliaga convicted Brunson on charges of espionage and aiding terror groups. It sentenced him to three years, one month and 15 days in jail but released him based on time served and good behavior.

Trump administration officials have said Brunson had “done nothing wrong” and that the charges were politically motivated.

Trump thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his help on the case, which caused not only a serious diplomatic row between the NATO allies but led to a crash in the lira, exposing Turkey’s economic fragility.

“Pastor Andrew Brunson, released by Turkey, will be with me in the Oval Office at 2:30 PM (this afternoon),” Trump tweeted.

“It will be wonderful to see and meet him. He is a great Christian who has been through such a tough experience. I would like to thank President @RT_Erdogan for his help!”

A spokesman for Erdogan, who had distanced himself from the case this week, insisted on the “independence and impartiality of the Turkish judiciary.”

Trump again denied an NBC report that Turkey and the United States had reached a secret deal for the 50-year-old Brunson to be released in exchange for the US easing “economic pressure” on Ankara.

“There was NO DEAL made with Turkey… I don’t make deals for hostages,” Trump said on Twitter.

“There was, however, great appreciation on behalf of the United States, which will lead to good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey!”

‘I am an innocent man’

Brunson, who was first detained in October 2016, faced up to 35 years in jail. Prosecutors then demanded a sentence of up to 10 years. The pastor steadfastly insisted he was not guilty.

“I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey,” he said in his final defense.

When the verdict was read out, Brunson wept and hugged his wife Norine.

After gathering his belongings, Brunson was driven to the airport in the Turkish city of Izmir, where he boarded a US military plane for Germany.

Upon arrival there for a refueling stop, he kissed an American flag presented to him by Richard Grenell, the US ambassador in Berlin.

Trump had pressed Ankara to release Brunson, an evangelical Presbyterian clergyman who lived in Turkey for nearly half his life, initially moving there in 1993 as part of a missionary program.

“I think he’s going to be in great shape,” Trump told a campaign rally in Ohio on Friday.

‘Navigate through a minefield’

While the strain in US-Turkish relations eased with Brunson’s release, problems remain.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Turkey to “quickly release” other Americans in detention.

He said Washington would “continue to work hard to bring home all American hostages and those wrongfully imprisoned and detained.”

NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual US-Turkish national, was jailed for seven and a half years in February on terror charges, a term reduced to five years last month.

And two Turkish employees of US diplomatic missions remain in jail. One of them, former Adana consulate staffer Hamza Ulucay, was denied release on Friday.

Anthony Skinner, director for Middle East and North Africa at the Verisk Maplecroft consultancy, said that the US and Turkey had plenty of disagreements beyond Brunson.

“The clamp has now been removed, which opens the way for bilateral negotiations to address other sources of disagreement, but Washington and Ankara still have to navigate through a minefield,” Skinner said.

He pointed to Turkey’s order for Russian S-400 missile defense systems, which has riled its Western allies, as well as Ankara’s determination to do business with Iran in defiance of US sanctions.

Turkey is bracing for potential fines from US authorities over sanctions-busting by Turkish lender Halkbank, whose deputy director general has been jailed in the United States.

Brunson’s release comes at a sensitive time for the Turkish leadership, which is under global scrutiny over how it handles the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared at Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul last week.

Both Erdogan and Trump have pressed Saudi Arabia to explain what happened to Khashoggi. Now that the Brunson issue has been resolved to Washington’s satisfaction, it could help the two sides coordinate their Saudi policy more closely.

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